Summary: There were two memorials constructed of stones on the day Israel crossed the Jordan River and entered Canaan. The LORD knew that eventually people would ask about these memorials. God told Joshua what to do and say.
Introduction: Moses had died and Joshua was now Israel’s leader to lead them into the Promised Land. When this story took place, Israel was camping on the east side of the Jordan River; Canaan itself was on the west. So that Israel would never forget what God did for them, God told Joshua to have the Israelites prepare two memorials. One of these would be visible near the place where they crossed the Jordan—but the other was to be placed in the Jordan River itself!
1 The memorial made of stones from the Jordan’s river bed
Text, Joshua 4:1-7, KJV: 1 And it came to pass, when all the people were clean passed over Jordan, that the LORD spake unto Joshua, saying, 2 Take you twelve men out of the people, out of every tribe a man, 3 And command ye them, saying, Take you hence out of the midst of Jordan, out of the place where the priests' feet stood firm, twelve stones, and ye shall carry them over with you, and leave them in the lodging place, where ye shall lodge this night. 4 Then Joshua called the twelve men, whom he had prepared of the children of Israel, out of every tribe a man: 5 And Joshua said unto them, Pass over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of Jordan, and take ye up every man of you a stone upon his shoulder, according unto the number of the tribes of the children of Israel: 6 That this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, What mean ye by these stones? 7 Then ye shall answer them, That the waters of Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it passed over Jordan, the waters of Jordan were cut off: and these stones shall be for a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever.
The nation of Israel didn’t arrive in Canaan until they had finished their wilderness journey, wandering nearly 40 years after they left Egypt (compare Exodus 12:35-42 with Deuteronomy 1:1-3). While they were camped near the Jordan River, Joshua sent the two spies into Jericho to get whatever information they could (Joshua 2). What info they did find of military or strategic importance is not known to us, but they did find in the city a convert to the God of Israel, named Rahab. She was granted the privilege of marrying into the family who eventually brought the Messiah into the world (see Matthew 1)! These two spies returned before the rest of the nation crossed the Jordan River.
Then, chapter 3 records how God gave the command for the people to cross the Jordan but only after the priests led the way. These men carried the Ark of the Covenant on their shoulders down to the edge of the river bank. This was a real test of faith for them because God promised He would take Israel across on dry ground (!)—but only after the priests put their feet in the river! That would be scary enough when the river was low but the Jordan was at flood stage. I’ve noticed a number of rivers over the years and while they may flow serenely during normal times, when the floods come, these rivers tend to flow very rapidly. Several commentators have observed that at this time, the Jordan was flowing swiftly indeed as it headed towards the Dead Sea. I wouldn’t have wanted to be either of the priests who were told to carry the Ark, heavy with its wood and gold construction, into a fast flowing river!
But these men did so and stepped into the Jordan. Once they did, and only when they did, God gave them the miracle He promised: the waters to the north stood up in a heap (3:16) and the rest of the waters “were cut off”. This makes sense, because if there is no water flowing downstream there won’t be any water to deal with.
And they crossed on dry—DRY—ground. Joshua, Caleb, and the survivors of those who left Egypt (they’d be in their 40’s to 60’s by now) might have remembered when Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry ground. No miry clay or mud at this time in the Jordan’s bed: dry means dry and everybody was able to cross without fear. I can imagine some 50-somethings talking to one another, “Hey, Reuben, you gonna throw a rock in there like you did back in Egypt?” and in reply, “No way, brother! I’m looking for fresh fish this time!” Then again, maybe nobody said a word in their haste to cross over. The important thing is that they were about to see God’s miraculous power over nature.